Another Challenge For Food Labeling

The Lempert Report
May 17, 2021

What’s healthy for one individual may be different for another.

In 1994, FDA issued a definition of “healthy” and authorized food manufacturers to use the term “healthy”. Under the regulation, food manufacturers could use the term “healthy” and related terms (i.e., “health, “healthful,” etc.) on food labels if the food meets certain nutritional requirements. While the nutritional requirements differ depending on the type of food and the serving size, most packaged foods had to meet the following requirements under the current regulation:

  • Low fat 3g of fat or less
  • Low saturated fat 1g of saturated fat or less
  • The disclosure level for cholesterol 60 mg cholesterol or less
  • 480 mg or less of sodium
  • At least 10% of the RDI or DRV for vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein or fiber

Then on September 28, 2016, growing criticism of the existing “healthy” definition prompted FDA to announce the start of a public process to redefine “healthy.” Critics pointed out that the existing definition was not consistent with current dietary recommendations and the updated Nutrition Facts label issued in 2016. Specific criticisms included the definition’s focus on nutrients instead food groups or types, the focus on total fat instead of types of fat, the failure to address added sugars, and the failure to reflect changes in nutrients of public health concern. Five years have passed since FDA announced its reconsideration of the “healthy” definition and FDA has not yet issued a proposed new definition. A week or so ago, on May 6 the FDA announced that it is considering the development of a graphic symbol to help consumers identify packaged food products that meet FDA’s anticipated definition of “healthy.” FDA proposes to conduct three research studies to explore consumer responses to a variety of draft front-of-package symbols that manufacturers could voluntarily use on food products as a graphic representation of the nutrient content claim “healthy.” There are now a slew of front of package label schemes that are often confusing to shoppers, number ratings, traffic light colors of red, yellow and green, number of stars to signify how healthy a product is – and the main problem is consistency between stores. And often you’ll find the same product rated differently in different stores. I don’t think the solution is going to come from research to figure out a graphic symbol – the first step needs to be a strict, science-based and proven definition of “healthy” – then we can figure out how to show it. And the major problem? What’s healthy for one individual may be different for another. This is not an easy problem to solve.